Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dig In - Salt

Salt and health and processed foods - a rant
I promise you that I am going to discuss kosher salt v. sea salt v. ordinary iodized table salt.   But before we get to the cooking part I just HAVE to have a little talk with you about salt and health and processed foods.  If you are a political junkie like me, this is a fascinating topic. If you are not, well you owe it to yourself to at least hit the high points.

Did you know that one out of three adults in our country has high blood pressure, aka as hypertension?  That adds up to about 75 million people.  Another 50 million are considered "pre-hypertensive."  Excess sodium is a cause of hypertension (high blood presssure).  Some people are worried about this because high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure or kidney failure.   So too much salt in our food might just have a little something to do with the fact that we are spending upwards of 18 % of our gross national product on health care. 

As you might expect, money has something to do with all this.  Big money.  According to the FDA, 75% of the salt that Americans consume every year comes from salt added to processed food by manufacturers and salt added at restaurants and other food service establishments.  Without all this salt, most of that food wouldn't taste as good and people would not buy it.  More expensive ingredients would have to be added, either cutting into profits or costing consumers more or both.  It's simple.  Less salt = less cheap food.   

In April of this year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report that said "national action is imperative to reduce the sodium content of foods."    http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2010/Strategies-to-Reduce-Sodium-Intake-in-the-United-States.aspxThe IOM is the health arm of the National Academies of Science.  It is an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to "advise the nation to improve health".  So lots of people are studying salt and diet and health right now.  Like they have been for at least forty years.

Don't hold your breath waiting for some big national government solution to this huge public health problem.  I say just keep doing what I think you are already doing - eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed and restaurant food.  Go to a farmers market.  Sign up for a CSA share.  Encourage your friends and family to do likewise.  If "national action" is not just around the corner, then some personal action is in order.  I salute you and all the health heros who are taking knives into their own hands and fighting the war on sodium in their own kitchens.  (I don't know why everybody gets so excited about guns all the time.  It is knives that are going to keep us secure and free, if you ask me.)

Good people are trying to help the hypertension epidemic by advocating for more government rules and for less salt in processed foods.  That is fine but how about just pushing for less processed foods?  As far as I can tell  hardly anybody at the highest levels of government and industry is excited by my favorite revolutionary idea -- home cooking with real food.  I think it is because there is not enough money in it for the big guys.

FDA publications are suggesting solutions like "ask your grocer to carry more low-sodium products" or "asking for low sodium options at restaurants".   Doesn't anyone at the FDA go grocery shopping?  Your grocer DOES carry low sodium products.  Lots of them.  They are just not in the middle of the store where all the packaged stuff is.  And if restaurants are going to start offering low sodium options that people will actually want to eat, then they are going to have to put more real cooks in their kitchens.  Brings us back to money again.

I hope you are still with me.  If this topic piques your interest, I highly recommend that you follow this link to a recent article about salt and processed food and money in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/health/30salt.html?hp=&pagewanted=all  

How much salt is too much salt?  How much is enough?
All anyone needs, biologically, is about 220 mg of sodium a day.  That is 1/10 of a teaspoon.  The average American consumes from 2 to 4 teaspoons a day - MUCH more than they need.  (Remember -- most of that salt is coming from processed or restaurant foods).  If you are an otherwise healthy adult under age 50, then the U.S. dietary guidelines say that you should consume no more than 2,300 mg a day, or about 1 teaspoon.  If you are a child, African American, or are over 50, then you should not exceed 1,500 mg a day - about 7/10 of a teaspoon.  If you already have high blood pressure, you should ask your doctor about this.

What kind of salt is best to use for cooking or table use?  Kosher? Sea? Ordinary iodized salt?
The Mayo Clinic web site has a nice discussion about table salt v. sea salt.  http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sea-salt/AN01142
The bottom line is that the two are the same, chemically.  But sea salt, because it is processed differently and retains trace minerals,  can have a variety of colors, flavors and coarseness.  For that reason some cooks like to use sea salt for seasoning and especially finishing a dish.

Alice Waters advocates for using sea salt, saying that the flavor is "more complex".  She uses very coarse sea salt for use in boiling water and finer salt for seasoning.  And she reminds cooks to taste taste taste:  "Keep tasting, learn how salt works with flavor and use it to get the most out of what you are cooking".  Good advice.

I use kosher salt for cooking and table use, including baking. Maybe my palate is just not as highly developed as that of Alice Waters, but I have not yet developed a sea salt habit.   I like the clean taste (it has no additives or anti caking agents) and slight coarseness and crunchiness of kosher salt.  It is very affordable and widely available. I think one teaspoon of kosher salt has a little less sodium than table salt just because it is not as fine.  Kosher salt can be mined underground or evaporated from sea or saline lake water.

Table salt is mined underground and is refined to remove almost all the minerals.  It is commonly iodized.  Anti caking agents are added to resist moisture absorption and to improve flow.  ("When it rains it pours".  Get it?)

I encourage you to experiment a bit with special sea salt in recipes where you can really taste the salt.  This salt can be very expensive, so start modestly.  If you find a kind you love by all means keep some around. If any of you out there have some recommendations - let us in on the secret.

I can't really give you an opinion about iodine today.  I think in this country if you have a well balanced diet you don't have to worry about using iodized salt.  In some countries of the world this is a huge issue and it is good that iodine is added to salt.  Is there a nutritionist in the house who would like to take on this topic?

What can I do to prevent sodium induced hypertension in my family?
Michael Pollan, scourge of many segments of the food industry, has a good suggestion:  "Sweeten and salt your food yourself."  He says,  "Whether soups or cereals or soft drinks, foods and beverages that have been prepared by corporations contain far higher levels of salt and sugar than any ordinary human would ever add-even a child.  By sweetening and salting these foods yourself, you'll make them to your taste, and you will find you're consuming a fraction as much sugar and salt as you otherwise would."  Food Rules An Eater's Manual, by Michael Pollan, p. 75 http://michaelpollan.com/books/food-rules/

And please don't worry too much about sodium unless your doctor is telling you to.  If you are avoiding fast foods and processed foods and mostly cooking at home, I am guessing you have nothing to worry about.  And you can take that advice with a grain of salt.

1 comment:

  1. I've had an interesting experience with too little salt in my diet. I eat almost no processed foods and hadn't been really adding any to my own food because I always hear that we get plenty in the food we eat and didn't miss the taste of it. I'm also an athlete (xc ski racer) and train year round about 8hr/wk so I guess I sweat more than most people. I began having a lot of problems with muscle cramps and heart arhythmia. I went to the doctor and found that my sodium was on the very low edge of normal. I began shaking a bit of salt on my breakfast oatmeal and the problems improved quickly. After several months they have completely disappeared. It didn't take much, but I guess you need at least a little.